Thursday, February 18, 2010

march, 1994: big black dog

A few years short of our new century (and my 40th birthday), an old voice called to beckon, at 4:30 a.m. on our bedroom phone. Never a happy omen.

On this particular morning the sound didn't come as a complete shock - Linda's mother was
in a local nursing facility at the time and was not expected to live out the week - but the voice at the other end gave me pause - it was my older brother.

"I wanted to let you know that Dad died last night."

Under the circumstances, I wasn't exactly sure how to respond. Several weeks earlier he'd phoned as well, timidly inquiring (as much he was able) to see if I would be interested in flying back to Kansas to visit Dad one last time, as if a family. I opted not, and stayed behind. Roger flew back alone. Poetically speaking, a bold stroke.

"I'm sorry for you, Rog."

But, in fact, I was more curious than sorry, and less about the old man's pitiful, final hours then why a son he had routinely beaten the shit out of (at around the age of five) would end up rushing to his bedside in his final hours, except perhaps to hear an apology, which no one on this earth would have expected (or ever received) in the case of Dale H. Hinds. Wife beater, child beater, and worse.

Picturing it all I found equally difficult. What kept pushing its way into my mind was the image of a dog that had lived in our old neighborhood, so many, many years ago. A mean, black dog. Every kid on the block feared it, and hated it, and it hated us.

A handful of years before our family had split up for the first time, we lived in a two-story corner house on Jameson Street, in Old Woolley. In those days, Jameson was a cement-topped street, although it lacked an actual curb, and just a few yards east of us even that distinction ceased - it was where the marked streets ended and gravel and dust began.

In the communal map of a child's mind, our homes, schools and the corner store were connected with an informal and invisible grid of shortcuts and favored paths, which wandered through assorted backyards and alleyways, overgrown vacant lots, local playgrounds, and in very special cases, an abandoned building or two, which could serve as a hiding place, if such a need arose. And occasionally did.

Guarding one such alley was a single vicious, nameless cur that roamed freely the realms between our street and next few running north. He showed no sign of either an owner or home base, and if a dog actually did stand guard at the gates of Hell, at least to our wary handful of five and six year olds, he was it. We referred to him simply as the "Black dog" and avoided him at nearly any cost. But of course there was a catch: his alley was also the quickest direct shortcut to and from our grade school.

Although a Hellion, our experience had lead us to believe he was also a lazy one, and only half the time at best was found to be guarding his post. In fact, many mornings were just fine, and showed no sign of him. But then, just when you had almost forgotten about him, there he was, lurching around the corner with teeth bared back to his ears, and a snarl to send you running, late for school or not, our lunch bags dropped and left for him to savage.

Several of us had even taken the precaution of stashing weapons along the route, just in case. Rocks, bottles, sticks, a broken hammer, the usual items. At some point I'd found an old bean pole, sharpened to an approximately lethal point, that, at least in my imagination, would protect me come what may. I kept it at the ready, tucked under a garage just off the main street on the way in to Black dog alley, and in a thick bush at the other end, and it provided a degree of security that allowed me at least to consider the route a survivable path, although I never had the opportunity chance to actually use it. And likely wouldn't have, if genuinely confronted. But like the others, I stayed lucky.

And then came the day, on the way home from school, on a early, crisp September afternoon, when luck, real-life and illusion smashed headlong in a way it will do only with an innocent life.

I took a look down the alley in question - clear -, slipped my sharpened stick out from under it's hiding place, and preceded home, straight in the direction of Kool-Aid, cinnamon toast and J. P. Patches. I didn't make it. Halfway there I heard him coming.

Or at least had thought I did. I burst out of the alley and ran towards a large vacant field, the last stretch that separated me from the safe island of my own front porch. But I could still hear him. Somewhere. Close.

I looked over my shoulder, thinking that maybe someone else had snuck up behind me,
making a panting sound. But when I turned, I was alone. I turned around and scanned the drying grass across the little field, but saw nothing. Then came a whimper. I moved closer
into the field, sticking close to the skinny path that a thousand small tennis shoes had patted down and carved through its center, step by step.

At first the sound and shape was unclear, but as I clutched my beanpole and inched warily, deeper into the tall grass, a form finally came into clear view: it was Black dog, he was hurt, and hurt bad, obviously either hit or run over by a car, and left for dead. Even at six, it occurred to me that, given his track record in the neighborhood, it may have been no accident.

Still alive, but just barely, he was bleeding and shivering horribly. With a Herculean effort, he'd somehow managed to drag himself a few yards into the field and out of the street, but from the looks of things he wouldn't be moving much further: The grass underneath his spotty-black belly was matted with thick, dark blood and one leg was twisted strangely under his one side, out of sight. Bad.

Although I wasn't about to move any closer, it was clear that most of the fight had already leaked out of him, and when he did see me, and raised his snout to aim his yellow gaze in my direction, it was not with the fierce, bared teeth I'd come to recognize as the image of pure fear. It was a helpless, suffering stare that was, with no other words to describe it, eye to eye, creature to creature. Without dropping my stick, I sunk to my knees and just watched him.


It was me and Black dog. And I squatted there and waited, until his panting slowed, his head bowed, and his tiny whimpers faded to be only the air moving in and past his whiskers, and then did not move at all. When dark came, I stood up and walked the half-block to home.

By the time I reached it I knew that death had came to us both that afternoon, in the same gold-grass field. Me, for the first time, and for Black dog, a last time. There was no fear left in my heart now, only shame, and pity, and sorrow. For the both of us. I had seen Death wink at me and would never forget its face. Ever.

So when my brother asked me to ride with him back to see Dad one last time, I knew entirely what I was passing up.

For that poor, angry, dumb, black creature I had spilled out my heart and had it broken, piece by piece, drop by drop, until I was almost dead myself.

Men and fathers, at least my own, did not warrant such a privilege.

Monday, February 15, 2010

my old girlfriend from Paris

The face certainly comes as no shock to our old friends and confidentes. Andromeda, She's French, and a tad older than me.

She's been with me since I was just sixteen, all through high school (we meet quite unexpectantly on a shopping trip). She was never any kind of secret as far as my family was concerned, after all she stayed in my bedroom and and that was that.

When I was married, at 26, it went without being said that she was just part of the arrangement. And the three of us, Linda, Andromeda and I, have been pretty good company.

to be continued...